Protecting our grey matter

Most sports helmets reduce the risk of catastrophic head injuries but don’t protect enough against less serious injuries like concussions.

by Celeste MacKenzie

The 2009 death of actress Natasha Richardson following a fall during a ski lesson at a Quebec ski resort put the spotlight on the need for sports helmets in even seemingly benign contexts, such as skiing on a beginner hill. But depending on the risks involved in a given activity, the effectiveness of helmets on the market can vary greatly. 

At the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory (NIL), Blaine Hoshizaki’s lab specializes in putting sports helmets to the test. Helmet-clad test headforms, dropped from a height of several metres, slam down on a hard surface below; others are slammed into each other at high velocity. To collect the data investigators need, video cameras and computers record the impacts. 

Hoshizaki, who is director of both the NIL and the School of Human Kinetics, says while research shows the use of most sports helmets reduces the risk of catastrophic head injuries like skull fractures and internal bleeding, helmets don’t do a good enough job of reducing the risk of less serious traumatic injuries like concussions. 

Why is this? One reason is a gap in the research that has been done so far—testing from a variety of impact angles has been very limited. And, too little testing using models based on the smaller head sizes of children is another reason skiers, skaters, hockey players, snowmobilers, cyclists and other sports and play enthusiasts suffer trauma even with helmets on, according to Hoshizaki. 

Another factor is the lack of Canadian legislation requiring alpine and bike helmets to be manufactured to Canadian Standards Association (CSA) specifications. As an example, Hoshizaki cites ski helmets, which really require thicker, softer padding for kids. “Small helmets in Canada generally fail CSA testing, but most consumers don’t know there is no law in Canada that requires manufacturers to adhere to the standards,” he says. 

To make improvements to helmet safety in general, Hoshizaki looks at a variety of information, including the kind of risky behaviour typically undertaken. In addition, it is important to know the speeds at which impact is experienced, the heights, surfaces and objects involved in impacts and the give upon impact of these surfaces and objects. 

Hoshizaki also examines medical information from victims of head injuries. But rather than just test the damage to or strain on the helmets themselves, the lab uses sophisticated computer modeling to determine how impact actually translates into head injuries. 

Hoshizaki has also done a lot of testing to develop brand new helmet technology in his lab. A new design that features 18 adaptive air-cell shock absorbers provides more effective cushioning than traditional hard foam. This technology has been used by the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees football team as well as other university and professional sports organizations, including the National Football League.

One of Hoshizaki’s most recent investigations has been on behalf of ThinkFirst, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing brain and spinal core injuries. Hoshizaki was asked by ThinkFirst to identify which helmets are best for kids to wear while doing different winter sports. 

After looking at when, where and how children engage in risky behaviour, Hoshizaki developed a protocol, modeled on children’s heads, to test hockey, bike and downhill ski helmets. He found that hockey helmets outperform at lower speeds during activities such as skating as well as tobogganing on a short or gradual slope. Bike helmets, however, provide better protection at high speeds. Although the large coverage area of ski helmets should make them, in theory, a better choice for both types of impact, Hoshizaki says all models need to provide better protection than they currently do. 

The professor insists that compliance to manufacturing standards wouldn’t be difficult. But because manufacturers sell to markets around the world, they prefer not to produce and market helmets for different jurisdictions. Nonetheless, due to an alarming number of head injuries in hockey in the late 1970s, helmets used in this sport were eventually legislated under the Hazardous Products Act, which requires manufacturers to produce hockey helmets that meet CSA standards. 

But even a CSA standard helmet won’t necessarily protect someone who hits a hard surface while moving at an extreme speed. So, although public tobogganing hills are oft en closed when conditions become too icy, Hoshizaki feels there must be ways to ensure users understand the risks of taking part in such activities. “It’s about managing different risks,” says Hoshizaki. “That means that in addition to requiring people to wear certified head protection, municipalities must more closely monitor the hills and certify them as well so users can properly evaluate any danger.” 

Over the last decade or so, wearing helmets has become more and more common for both children and adults. But Hoshizaki says it’s difficult to say if helmet use is leading to a decreased number of traumatic head injuries because people are also engaging in riskier activities. Extreme sports are becoming even more popular, and a greater number of girls and women are now participating in them. 

The level of participation in risky activities continues to increase and so will the demand for Hoshizaki’s expertise as we strive to protect what is perhaps our most important asset — our grey matter. As more and more people engage in risky sports, preventing or at least minimizing head injuries is becoming an urgent priority. 

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